Jeff Brandes files for re-election; is he vulnerable in '14? Is he a contender for Senate President?

By on November 26, 2012

Newly elected State Senator Jeff Brandes filed paperwork last week to start the process of running for re-election in 2014, according to the state Division of Elections. This gives Brandes the distinction of being one of the only politicians to file to run for three different offices in one calendar year (House District 68 in ’12, Senate District 22 in ’12 and Senate District 22 in ’14).

It also speaks volumes about the crack political operation (of which I was once part) behind Brandes.

The St. Petersburg Republican has Enwright Consulting on retainer, along with Adam Goodman’s Victory Group to craft high-value TV commercials and uber fundraiser Gretchen Picotte to raise the money to pay for it all.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Brandes’ political operation is on par with, if not better than, most Florida congressional campaigns.

Smart, wealthy, and young, Brandes is certainly a man on the rise. Yet, he’s also gotten something of a bum rap — especially in local media circles. For the most part, Brandes is lumped in with the rest of the Tea Party. I’ve never understood this. Yes, Brandes is a devout libertarian, but there’s no evidence of him believing the anti-immigration, anti-science thinking which is now synonymous with the right wing of the GOP.

Brandes is, after all, the guy who touts the Google Car. He sponsored the bill to expand Silicon Valley-based SunBay Digital Mathematics. This past summer, he toured Apple’s headquarters in Palo Alto. In other words, he is not the kind of elected official who’d vote to take the fluoride out of the public’s drinking water.

Moreover, Brandes was rated by PolitiFact as the most independent member of the House Republican caucus.  Still, the Tampa Bay Times has had it out for Brandes since he decided to challenge Democrat Bill Heller.

Brandes represents a swath of South Pinellas which is certainly more blue than red. It went for Obama in ’08 and Sink in ’10. The final analysis of the 2012 results is still underway, but a preliminary precinct-by-precinct analysis appears to show that the newly drawn seat went for Obama. That the Florida Democratic Party was unable to field a candidate in this seat amounted to political malpractice.

So, now that Brandes filed for re-election, it’s worth asking: Is he vulnerable? In my estimation, yes he is, but really not. At least not yet.

Again, this should be a seat where the Democrats are active. In fact, my blogging colleagues at the Political Hurricane suggest that if the Florida Democratic Party is not able to recruit a candidate to run in Senate District 22 “many will be calling for the head of the new FDP chair as, again, it would be a tragedy.”

 And here’s why Democrats should really be interested in this seat: Rick Scott will be at the top of ticket.

I’ve heard all of the arguments about how Republicans do better in non-presidential election cycles and I’m telling you, with Scott at the top of the ballot, none of that history matters. He will be the exception that proves the rule. He is the Jon Corzine of Florida — an unpopular rich man who will only get more unpopular the closer the election gets and the more money he spends.

That’s why I’ve always told Brandes that his toughest campaign will not have been his first run in 2010 or his expensive primary in 2012. It will be his re-election campaign in 2014 with Rick Scott at the top of ticket and Charlie Crist running as a Democrat turning out thousands of South Pinellas voters who don’t often participate in gubernatorial election.

Under that scenario, yes, Jeff Brandes is very vulnerable.

Except, which Democrat is going to run against him?

Two of the candidates who had the best shot to beat Brandes on ’14 — Charlie Justice and Janet Long — just won seats on the County Commission, so scratch them.

Rick Kriseman would have been a formidable opponent — had he run for re-election to the Florida House in ’12. Now it looks like he’s running for Mayor of St. Petersburg in 2013.

Darryl Rouson has flirted with running for the seat, but him running for the State Senate in ’14 no longer seems plausible, for a variety of reasons, including the fact he’s seeking to be Democratic Leader in ’14. Plus, something tells me Rouson will be busy with helping Crist’s gubernatorial campaign.

Sorry donkeys, but the cupboard is bare. That’s what makes Brandes not as vulnerable as the political environment might suggest. Democrats will argue that Mike Clelland wasn’t on anyone’s radar before he knocked off Chris Dorworth, but that’s apples and bowling balls. Brandes has none of the ethical issues that typically make an incumbent vulnerable.

So Brandes wins in another walk. What’s next for him?

Congress, perhaps when US Rep. Bill Young finally retires?

All indications are that Brandes isn’t interested in D.C. — and I believe that. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s actually more attractive to be a Republican State Senator in Tallahassee, than a Republican Congressman in Washington.

I believe the endgame for Jeff Brandes is to be Senate President in 2019.

Brandes is in a district that allows him to serve ten years, so he has the time to be patient.

A couple of other recent developments tell me Brandes is serious about making a genuine difference in the Senate. The first is Jim Rimes, Brandes’ political consultant, taking the job as Staff Director of the Senator Majority Office. What better perch for Rimes to line up pledges for Brandes than from that position? Second, Brandes has hired Caitlin Murray as his chief legislative aide. Murray just finished a tour of duty working for budget chief JD Alexander, automatically making her one of the best staffers to hire if one is interested in a crash course on how to maneuver in the Senate.

Third, and most important, Brandes has cast his lot with Joe Negron as Negron scrums with Jack Latvala for the Senate Presidency in 2017. Could that be part of the deal for Brandes to not support his Pinellas brethren, that Brandes follows Negron as Senate President? It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, although I’m sure some of Brandes’ colleagues, such as Bill Galvano, might have something to say about it.

Vulnerable in 2014. Senate President in 2019. Both are possibilities in  Jeff Brandes’ future, making him one of the must-watch politicians for the next decade.

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